Coatesian History

Reading this warmed my heart:

God does not care about history, and history does not care about humans.

It’s a great joy to find someone articulate your beliefs even better than you do. It’s perhaps an even greater joy to find those string of words that you almost feel that you felt all along. It’s as much the appreciation of the prose as the actual content.

I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” recently(ish). It was just short enough, concise without being too bare. My favorite thing about Coates as a writer is his cold, “atheistic” view of history. It is the same flavor of thought that I praised from Kevin Simler’s work on “Personhood“, and that I enjoyed from morphological definitions of species, the same interest that led me to read about others who were tired of the concept of the essence, and to renewed secularized concepts of essence.

In his blog he defines his position [links mine]:

I don’t have any gospel of my ownPostwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.

It’s refreshing. It is a history that was not preordained, and does not exist entirely as a platform for progress or as some lesson for the Chosen who have survived. In this essay (basically a condensed essay-version of the book), Coates explains how as a young man he sought a black revisionist history to support his sense of worth, to counter bombardment from what he might have seen as a whitewashed majoritarian history. He admits that he was disavowed of that notion, and that he came to realize that the very terms of that game begged for further scrutiny.

From New York Magazine:

Coates is not a Christian. The heavy force in Between the World and Me — what makes it both unique and bleak — is his atheism. It gives Coates’s writing urgency. To consider the African-American experience without the language of souls and destiny is to strip it of euphemism, and to make the security of African-American bodies even more crucial. It also isolates him from the main black political tradition. “There’s a kind of optimism specifically within Christianity about the world — about whose side God is on,” he said. “Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos.”

(His racial definitions are also malleable and non-essential, although that is probably a less unique feature of his writing and something I was already familiar with.)

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